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Conservationists push for 'green burial'

Plan cemetery to buy, protect N.H. ranchland

GALISTEO BASIN PRESERVE, N.M. -- Tromping across a small, grassy meadow ringed by piñon and juniper trees and dotted with cactuses and clumps of bright-yellow flowers, Joe Sehee suddenly came to a stop.

``That's definitely a burial area," he said, peering at the gently sloped, south-facing hillside. ``It's somewhat protected, so you have a feeling of being comforted here."

Some day soon, he said, visitors to this patch of ranchland will be able to admire the view -- uninterrupted for miles -- then scout out a spot to be buried, in graves marked by rocks or trees or newly sown wildflowers or nothing at all.

A proposed 10-acre ``green burial" site is a small but singular component of an ambitious conservation and community development project underway about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe. It's part of a small but growing movement to offer environmentally conscious cemeteries and protect open land in the bargain.

Commonwealth Conservancy is buying a 13,000-acre ranch, of which nearly 12,000 acres is slated for preservation as open space available for use by the public.

``The landscape is gorgeous, just spectacular classic West -- buttes and grasslands and mountains," said Ted Harrison, founder and president of the conservancy.

Development on a small slice of the ranch -- principally 300 acres devoted to a mixed-use, mixed-income village of as many as 965 homes -- is providing the money for the project, the Galisteo Basin Preserve.

A ``memorial landscape" that Sehee is planning about a mile from the village would be open to residents and nonresidents, for the earth-friendly burial of ashes or of unembalmed bodies in biodegradable boxes or in shrouds.

It also would fund conservation: Roughly half of what someone pays to be buried on the property would be used to buy and preserve nearby acreage.

Harrison said combining conservation and environmentally conscious development makes sense, particularly as public money for land acquisition dwindles and ranchers in the West face increasing economic pressures to sell.

``I think it's one of the ways that we can preserve the open space and habitat values of these historic ranches," said Harrison, who spent 18 years with the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization.

And while he acknowledges that in the world of romanticized real estate pitches ``you don't do death in a master-planned community," Harrison said having a burial site near the proposed village -- with its homes, shops, schools, and workplaces -- will make for a more complete community.

``If that cemetery is there as a reminder of life's fragility and preciousness, what a difference in the consciousness of this community," Harrison said.

He expects the idea of combining natural burial and conservation to appeal to baby boomers who are ``longing for meaning" and want to be buried in a way that reflects their values.

A headstone on a grassy plot in a conventional cemetery ``doesn't say anything about who you were as a person," Harrison said.

Michael Fischer, a former executive director of the National Sierra Club and the California Coastal Commission, said green burial is a new tool for conservation organizations, which in the past have been skeptical about being linked to the burial industry.

For a conservation group that wants to protect a piece of land ``in perpetuity," it has the plus of making that place special to generations of families of those buried there, he said.

And there's a growing market for simple burials in an environmentally sustainable manner, said Fischer, who is an adviser to the Green Burial Council, which Sehee founded. The council recently came up with standards for the certification of green cemeteries.

``My own sense is that the demand is quite great," Fischer said.

More common in Britain, green burial sites can be found in just a handful of states: New York, California, Texas, and Washington. The Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, which opened a decade ago, is the oldest.

In Colorado, a family is in the process of buying about 80 acres of ranch land northeast of Greeley with the intention of starting the Prairie Wilderness Cemetery. Organizers envision a bird sanctuary and a haven for hikers and picnickers.

Sehee said consumers would be charged about $4,000 for a whole-body burial and $1,000 for the burial of ashes at Galisteo Basin Preserve. About half of that would offset the costs of starting and operating the cemetery .

``Instead of a more expensive casket, [consumers] will be asked if they want to save another acre," Sehee said.

Families that wanted to make large conservation purchases -- of $1 million, for example -- with attendant state and federal tax advantages would get private family burial sites of 500 acres, Sehee said. Ten such sites will be available.

Plans for development on the Galisteo Basin Preserve are undergoing review by county officials, and Harrison hopes construction of the first homes will be underway in the summer of 2008. Sehee said he may begin taking pledges for burial spots this fall.

Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., said the fact that the preserve will be open to the public, not just to people who live on the property, makes it unusual. Typically, use of open space in such projects is reserved for residents.

The green burial space gives it even more of a twist, said McMahon, a senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the institute.

``I'm not familiar with other projects that have that component, but I think it's a pretty creative idea," he said.

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